Politics

MPs slam Afghan detainee document 'charade'

Opposition MPs have accused the Conservative government of showing contempt for the authority of Parliament with its tabling of about 2,500 pages of heavily redacted documents related to the Afghan detainee controversy.

Tories trying to 'bide time to protect themselves' says NDP critic

Opposition MPs have accused the Conservative government of showing contempt for the authority of Parliament with its tabling of about 2,500 pages of heavily redacted documents related to the Afghan detainee controversy.

In this July 2009 file photo, a man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))

In a surprise move Thursday morning, the government presented two boxes containing a single copy of what it said were previously unreleased documents pertaining to the handling of Afghan detainees. Photocopies then needed to be made before they were distributed to the opposition.

MPs from all three opposition parties have been trying to get the government to abide by a parliamentary order issued in December to release detainee-related documents without heavily blacked-out redactions. The government has rebuffed their request, citing national security concerns.

During Thursday's question period, NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair accused the Conservatives of using the documents as a way to "bide time to protect themselves."

"Behind the lie that this is about national security, it's just the same old story," Mulcair told the House.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh told the House the presentation of the material — in a single copy, and in English only — was "totally incoherent and totally disorderly," while Bloc Québécois MP Claude Bachand said the Conservatives pretended to co-operate with the House, but were still "hiding the truth" with large portions of blacked-out text.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson defended the redactions, saying they are made by "non-partisan public servants whose only interest is the protection of national security." He encouraged opposition members to review the material before jumping to any conclusions about their content.

"This is not like the budget," Nicholson quipped, in reference to the three opposition leaders' quick condemnation of the Tories' fiscal plan earlier this month.

The opposition wants to see whether government documents contain information dealing with the risk of torture in Afghan jails for suspected Taliban fighters handed over by Canadian troops.

A special Commons committee on the Afghanistan mission has been investigating the issue for months and has heard that the government had clear warnings about torture, but continued to transfer detainees into Afghan custody.

Last November, the committee heard bombshell testimony from former top diplomat Richard Colvin, who alleged that all prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities were likely subsequently abused and that government officials were well aware of the problem. Government and military officials have vehemently denied Colvin's allegations.

Opposition parties have accused the prime minister of using the recent two-month prorogation of Parliament to hinder the committee's work and avoid potentially embarrassing questions on the Afghan detainee affair.

Speaker's ruling awaited

Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin spoke last November to the Commons committee on Afghanistan about his experience with the detainee transfer issue. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale called the government's presentation a "charade" and said it failed to meet any of the transparency or information requirements set out in a Dec. 10 motion passed by the House ordering the government to hand over specific documents to the Afghanistan committee in unredacted form.

"What have they been doing with the documents for the past 3½ months?" Goodale said in the House. "What we've had here is a show."

But Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to government House leader Jay Hill, repeated the government's position that it is legally bound by security concerns, but is working with Parliament to provide the requested material as quickly as it can.

"We've consistently stated that all legally available documents will continue to be tabled," he told the House.

Any potential resolution, or escalation, of the documents showdown now rests on the shoulders of House Speaker Peter Milliken, who has yet to rule on the opposition parties' appeals for him to find the government violated parliamentary privilege by refusing to abide by the Dec. 10 House order.

Milliken has said he will consider the opposition motions after he hears from the responsible ministers, who have yet to reply to the issue of privilege.

On Thursday, the justice minister's office would only say the government will be responding on the issue "in due course."

Earlier this month, Nicholson announced that the government has enlisted retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to review the documents relating to the Afghan detainee affair and determine whether some could be made public.